Credit: Die4Kids/2006 IC CE200

Homeschooling, Pre-Schoolers, Charter Schools May Explain Drop in Public School Enrollment

Over the last year, 6,000 families joined the Connecticut Homeschool Network bringing the total number of families to about 15,000, according to Diane Connors, the organization’s co-founder. 

“We’ve seen a large increase this year unlike any other that I’ve been involved with and I’ve been involved for decades,” Connors said. “We have thousands of new homeschoolers across the state.”

According to Connors, more than 5 percent school-age children in Connecticut are homeschooled, up from 3.4 percent last year. At the same time, the state public school student population has dropped by more than 3 percent this year, according to the state Department of Education. 

While some districts have managed to retain or even increase their student enrollments, most school districts across eastern Connecticut have reported 5 to 10 percent declines in student populations.

“We’ve had double the amount of parents take their students out of school to homeschool — about 20 kids,” said William Hull, superintendent of Sprague Public Schools. 

In a district with just 247 students, that’s 8 percent of the population. 

The move to homeschooling, which was predicted this spring, is not unique to Connecticut. And if fact, the Home School Legal Defense Association, a national nonprofit advocacy group, reported a 15 percent increase in membership between this spring and fall.

Annual increases of homeschooled students has become the norm, but this year’s jump in homeschooling is out of the ordinary, according to the National Home Education Research Institute.  

“Some families have been thinking about homeschooling and this situation, this year, put them over the edge,” Connors said. “For some families, it’s that the kids don’t like distance learning. For others it’s scheduling issues with the hybrid model. For some it’s the mask issue which is very controversial. Some have an elderly family member living with them that they don’t want to expose.” 

Hull, and other school administrators, said that they expect some of the new homeschool students to return when COVID-19 policies, such as mask wearing and physical distancing of students, end. However, Connors said the public health policies and concerns are not the only reasons families are switching to homeschool.

“Some parents are not happy with what is going on with the curriculum, especially the new changes,” Connors said. “When the parents and children’s voices are not heard, they leave.” 

It’s often difficult to get an exact count on homeschoolers statewide because state law does not require families to notify the local school district unless a child has been previously enrolled and must first withdraw.

A decline in preschoolers 

According to local superintendents, homeschooling isn’t the only reason — on top of the state’s aging population — for the decline in public school enrollment. 

“We limited pre-k this year as our littlest learners are the most in your face and we thought it was better to air on the side of caution with COVID,” said Catherine Dowler, principal of Fields Memorial School in Bozrah. “We are at seven students in both classes instead of the usual 12 to 14.” 

The same is true in Sprague. 

“Our preschool numbers are down because parents are not sending preschoolers in. They’d rather delay when they start school,” Hull said. 

Although universal pre-kindergarten is not required by the state, over the past few years many districts have expanded programs beyond the required peer-to peer-program for special education students.

These three and four-year-old students are counted as part of the public school population and with many fewer attending classes in most districts this year the state numbers could be skewed low. 

An increase in charter school students

While many districts saw population declines greater than the state average, most charter schools retained student enrollments or reported sharp increases in student population.

Across Connecticut’s 21 state and local charter schools, the student population increased by 4 percent, from 10,230 to 10,701 students. The largest increases were reported by Achievement First Charter Schools including those in Bridgeport, Hartford and Amistad Academy in New Haven. 

That increase may not be related to COVID-19, but instead to approved seat and grade expansions by the state, according to the Department of Education. 

Overall, the state has approved 10,928 Charter School seats in 2020-2021 — 2.1 percent of the total public school population. 

Although this increase does not explain an overall state population decline, it may be responsible for some of the larger than anticipated district declines, including in Hartford and New Haven which both reported 8 percent declines in student enrollment.

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